When one of the most famous names of the 19th century performed at Derry’s Corporation Hall in 1876, there can be little doubt his star far outshone his stature.
Discovered as a child by the greatest of great showmen P.T Barnum, Tom Thumb was, by the time he set foot in Derry, a seasoned performer of some thirty years and had become equally adept at entertaining the masses as he was at courting Europe’s royal families and American Presidents.
The side show nature of the life of general Tom Thumb, and that of the lesser known John Allender, may now offend modern sensibilities, but in the late 1870s the whole world knew the name of the world’s smallest man.
Thumb, born Charles Sherwood Stratton in Connecticut in 1838, had been taken under Barnum’s wing aged just five. During his lifetime he never stood more than three feet tall.
Extensive European tours were nothing strange to the diminutive performer, whose act included impersonations, song and dance.
Meanwhile at that time, few outside of his home city of Derry knew of John Allender.
While Thumb had become a worldwide phenomenon, married and accumulated land and a fortune, Allender had been reared in Gwyn’s Institution for poor children, and was forging a career in his home city as a tailor.
Standing at eight feet tall, Allender’s height, as with Thumb’s, ensured his presence was always known.
And when Thumb was booked to appear in Derry, a canny and aspiring promoter ensured the paths of the world’s smallest man, and the man known to many as the Gentle Giant, would cross.
Local author Ken McCormack, who recounts the tale in his book, ‘Derry, Heroes, Villains, Ghosts’, takes up the story.
“Tom Thumb and his performers, mostly small people with a variety of talents, were billed to appear in Derry’s Corporation Hall in the Diamond.
“It was here that JF Warden, an actor and promoter, introduced Tom to Allender.”
Warden had happened on a grand idea - the two would re-enact Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels on stage as the show’s rousing finale.
McCormack describes the show’s ‘piece de resistance’.
“The curtain went back to reveal Derry’s own Jimmy Allender supine and bound on the stage, a prisoner of Tom Thumb’s mocking Lilliputians, who were jeering and dancing around him.
“At a given signal Jimmy suddenly broke free from his bindings and scattered his captors to the four ends of the hall.
“It had the audience rolling in the aisles with laughter and the chase went on for ages with the place in absolute uproar.”
The show was an unqualified success.
“Nothing like it had ever been seen before and it had the city in fever pitch. Everybody agreed. It was a sensation,” says McCormack.
While well established global star Tom Thumb left Derry behind, bound for the next stop on his world tour, the success of the Corporation Hall show, had whetted the Gentle Giant’s appetite for the limelight, and Allender left for America, and the myriad of sideshows that toured the country.
American paper The Gazette, described Allender’s arrival stateside in April 1876.
“An Irish giant who arrived in Baltimore last week is thus described: He is a native of Co Derry, is 7 feet 4 inches high, large boned but not stout, and his name is given is James Allender, 28 years old.
“None of his ship mates are tall enough to reach above his shoulders, and some of them not much above his waist.”
The report goes on to say that “there is far too much of him to enable him to be an efficient seaman but he expects to be a success in the show business.”
The paper say the long sea journey has made him “round shouldered and very crooked” but that by the time he gets to Philadelphia he expects to be “straightened out”.
The paper also reports that Allender has a brother - who is taller than him.
But author Ken McCormack suggests the Derry man’s timing was wrong, and that his star was destined never to ascend to the height of the man with whom he had shared the Derry stage.
“In truth the days of the sideshow were numbered. Inevitably Jimmy Allender was not able to find enough bookings and was soon eking out a miserable existence,” he says.
An 1878 appearance at the Great Exhibition in Paris, where he was billed as ‘Le Geant Irlandais’, was among the final public appearances the Derryman made.
By 1880, and with his health failing, Allender found himself in a workhouse for the poor in the north east of England, ending his life much as it had began.
The following notice appeared in the South Durham Herald of June 5, 1886.
“James Allender, who is described as an Irish giant, and who recently died in the South Shields workhouse, was interred in Westoe cemetery on Saturday afternoon. The deceased, who was seven feet six inches in height, and weighed 27 stones. He was a native of Londonderry. The coffin measured seven feet ten inches by two feet two inches.”
He had married but had no children.
The man who he had shared the stage in Derry with Tom Thumb, would die three years later of a stroke, leaving an estate that included homes in New York and his native Connecticut.